There was an island where a few Englishmen, Frenchmen and Germans lived in 1914. It was so remote that news arrived every 60 days. In September, when news finally came, they learned that for more than six weeks now English and French people had been fighting over the sanctity of treaties against Germans.
For six weeks, these disparate people on the island had acted as if they were friends, when in fact they were enemies. Four years later an armistice was reached. Yet in the time it took to get that news to the battlefront, young men continued to fight and die as if the war was still on. In his book Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann notes, “Looking back we can see how indirect we know the environment in which we nevertheless live … Whatever we believe to be a true picture, we treat as if it were the environment itself” (p. 4).
The world is too complex to know everything directly, so we reconstruct simpler mental pictures to navigate life, and those mental pictures create expectations for how the world is supposed to function. What if the people we fight with aren’t really our enemies — or vice versa? What if our conflicts are rooted in false assumptions rather than reality?
God desired Cain to sacrifice the blood of a lamb to Him on the family altar, but instead Cain sacrificed his brother on the altar of his own anger. Cain thought the way to get ahead was to tear apart other people who were doing well. When God confronts him about the murder, Cain replies, “Not my problem.” Where did this kid get the expectation we don’t have to own up to our wrongs? Male Hollywood producers and American politicians hadn’t been invented yet. Oh, right. I guess the forbidden fruit hadn’t fallen far from the tree … .
When God called Abram to travel to a new world with his wife, they passed through Egyptian territory and it made Abram nervous. So, he asked Sarai to pretend to be his sister so they wouldn’t kill him to take his wife. Believing that lie, Pharaoh took Sarai to his house, but, the text says, “the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram's wife. So, Pharaoh called Abram and said, ‘What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?’” (Gen. 12:17–18). Unfortunately this wouldn’t be the last time Abram, or men in general, expected their wives to be someone other than who they are.
King Herod arrested John the Baptist for calling him out on his shady divorce and remarriage. During Herod’s birthday party his stepdaughter danced for him (which hopefully grates on your family expectations), and he promised her anything she wanted. Scripture says her mom told her to request John the Baptist’s head (Mark 6:24–25). Herod was distressed. I would be too. What a creepy family. He didn’t want to execute John, but his guests expected him to honor his promise. Sometimes the expectations of our peers and our culture override common sense, and good people end up casualties to our perceived social obligations.
In our final scenario, Peter told Jesus he would never deny Him. Even if everyone fails, he said, Jesus could expect him to remain faithful. That sounded good until he denied Jesus not once but three times. After it happened, Scripture says Peter “went out and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:62). Have you ever wept because you couldn’t live up to all the expectations you place on yourself?
One way you can discover some of those expectations is by noticing how many times the word “should” is used in your internal monologue. We project the word “should” on ourselves and others with regard to spouses, kids, career goals, etc. Too often, though, those expectations are based on practices and cultures we have never thoughtfully evaluated. We sometimes assume societal norms are correct or treat the expectations of others as if they were the gospel itself. Let’s not forget — people crucified Jesus because He didn’t fulfill their expectations. So cut yourself a break. Even God can’t make everyone happy.
Expectations aren’t bad — they are a part of life. We need them to help us navigate our highly nuanced world … as long as they are true. Too often we assume they are true because they match preconceived ideas or our own limited experience.
This month take time to think through your expectations in some areas in which you experience conflict. What are my expectations? Where did they come from? Are they rooted in God’s love? Do they actually fit this relationship? Jesus tells us, “Stop judging by mere appearances and make a right judgment” (John 7:24). That includes the “appearances” we carry around in our heads that lead to false expectations.